Colonial Pipeline CEO speaks before Senate committee on ransomware attack

An aerial view of the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, on June 1.
An aerial view of the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, on June 1. Michael Ciaglo/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Many people think of cyberattacks as just that: an attempt by hackers to steal sensitive data or money online. But now hackers have found a significant moneymaker in targeting physical infrastructure.

These attacks have the potential to spark mayhem in people’s lives, leading to product shortages, higher prices and more. The greater the disruption, the greater the likelihood that companies will pay to alleviate it.

“If you’re a ransomware actor, your goal is to inflict as much pain as possible to compel these companies to pay you,” said Katell Thielemann, Gartner’s vice president analyst for security and risk management. “This is beyond cybersecurity only, this is now a cyber-physical event where actual, physical-world processes get halted. When you can target companies in those environments, clearly that’s where the most pain is felt because that’s where they make money.”

Multiple recent ransomware attacks have originated from Russia, according to US officials. Last Wednesday, the FBI attributed the attack on meat producer JBS to Russia-based cybercriminal group called REvil, which also tried to extort Apple supplier Quanta Computer earlier this year. REvil is similar to DarkSide, the group US officials said was behind the ransomware attack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline last month.

Experts say both REvil and DarkSide operate what are essentially “ransomware-as-a-service” businesses, often employing large staffs to create tools to help others execute ransomware attacks, and taking a cut of the profits. In some cases, they also carry out their own attacks. Russian law enforcement typically leaves such groups operating within the country alone if their targets are elsewhere because they bring money into the country, cybersecurity experts say.

The list of potential targets is long. The US government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) lists 16 different industries as “critical infrastructure sectors,” including energy, healthcare, financial services, water, transportation, food and agriculture, the compromise of which could have a “debilitating effect” on the US economy and security. But experts say much of this infrastructure is aging, and its cyber defenses haven’t kept up with the evolution of bad actors.

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